In the 1999 rom-com Notting Hill, Julia Roberts, playing a famous actress, tells a sob story in a bid for a brownie: “Every time I get my heart broken, the newspapers splash it about as though it’s entertainment.” With this, she attempts to convince a dinner party populated by regular people that she is just as deserving of the dessert as they are, that her tabloid-tormented life is as sad as theirs.
The scene now feels like an artifact. Influencers have displaced movie stars, and everyone—namely Gen Z-ers and millennials—sees their broken hearts and private moments not as something to conceal but as content for “splashing about” on social-media platforms, especially TikTok.
Although it’s relatively new, TikTok may soon surpass Instagram in its number of monthly users, and already beats out its rival in terms of daily screen time. Among the app’s draws are its countless subgenres, such as toxic-in-law TikTok, witch TikTok, and cowboy TikTok. And then there’s breakup TikTok, which is devoted to decoupling and features posts that range from artfully edited mini-movies to seemingly real-time emotional dumps. All of them have one thing in common, however: raw—at times very raw—displays of vulnerability.
The Way We Are
Mykayla, 17, made her breakup this past March, when she suspected her ex-boyfriend of having a new crush. “To the girl who gets the amazing opportunity of loving him next,” reads the first caption in her TikTok. What follows is a series of images of her ex, or the two of them together, all set to a sad song, with each image accompanied by a piece of her wisdom: “Order him a dr. pepper no ice,” “celebrate his victories & his love for God,” “He loves the GB Packers, Texas Rangers & the 1971 Chevy Camaro is his fav car.” She didn’t expect anyone to watch it. “I was just this 17-year-old being sad,” Mykayla told me. The video has 1.9 million views and has been favorited 405,200 times.
Breakup TikToks like Mykayla’s, structured as advice to an ex’s future love, are dramatic in the style of The Way We Were. They’re the Gen Z equivalent of “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell.” Audiences left that film feeling Streisand and Redford had made a terrible mistake. Mykayla’s viewers felt the same about her situation and took to the comments section to urge her to seek a reconciliation. So many people could see what her ex could not, which made Mykayla unbearably sad.
For a time, she disabled comments, but now that she has a new boyfriend, they’re back on. “I feel like love isn’t really what I thought it was,” she told me. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m dating this guy.’ But ever since I look back on it, I wasn’t really in love.”
In Mykayla’s view, her video had nothing to do with her suspicions about her ex’s new crush, and everything to do with a real desire to let go. “Once you have a lot of emotions,” she says, “you will just say anything.”
Everyone—namely Gen Z-ers and millennials—now sees their broken hearts and private moments not as something to conceal but as content for “splashing about” on social media, namely TikTok.
Sadness-induced outbursts provide the material for another kind of breakup TikTok: unedited footage of people crying hard over lost love. In one video, Delaney Wilson, 21, sits in her car, weeping in the dark, her face illuminated only by her phone. She winces, sobs, and gasps for air as she scream-cries, “I don’t care!” She then catches her breath, flips her blond hair, and begins bawling again. It has 967,000 views.
These breakup TikToks remind me of a not entirely abandoned adolescent habit of mine. I took selfies while I cried—maybe over a crush, or a muffin I regretted eating. According to breakup TikTokers, this is very much still a thing. One girl, named Charisma, said such photos helped her feel less lonely: looking at herself crying, as she cried, was a form of self-support. She now laughs about her breakup TikTok. Like Mykayla, she thinks her sadness about her ex—they dated for less than a month—tapped into her other sadnesses, those of past rejections and insecurities, opening up a well of emotion that led her to start recording. Her video is edited with a particular artfulness: scored with a sad ballad, its mini-scenes span a day of her trying to be O.K. but ultimately “falling apart” in a series of quick cuts that show her melting down in tears. She likened making the TikTok, which has 6.3 million views, to writing a song or a poem.
Boys Do Cry
Boys and men also create breakup TikToks. But audiences seem to interpret them differently, with the comments sections often filled with observations like “Girls don’t realize guys have feelings too” or “I’ve never seen a boy cry this hard.” Ethan, a 19-year-old, expresses a confused sense of betrayal in his video. In it, he sits on the floor of his room and tells viewers, “Yo, it don’t matter what you do. I gave this girl my heart.” He starts to cry and, placing his hand on his chest, says, “And she blocked me out of nowhere.” Then he turns his face from the camera and cries into his hands.
Ethan’s TikTok, which has 506,900 views, is about as raw as it gets: there are no cuts or lighting effects, and the music is supplied by Ethan’s own speakers, playing “Let Her Go,” by Passenger. He says his TikTok turned him into somewhat of a local legend, and everywhere he goes people say, “You dropped something,” in reference to his crown. He is viewed as a king for his bravery.
For Gen Z, breakup TikToks are defined by pathos, but for millennials the videos take a more practical approach, offering advice for moving on, or rebuilding self-worth. On the day Amelia, who is 27, was broken up with 14 weeks ago, she found herself at home alone, crying. “I was like, ‘I wish I could look at chapters of someone’s healing.’”
That night, she made her breakup TikTok, which has turned into a series documenting her emotional journey. Amelia also spends a lot of time making her videos, recording five separate takes before, usually, choosing the last one. Unless she cries, in which case she posts the first take.
Part of the allure of breakup TikToks is the voyeuristic pleasure in watching a meltdown. As Amelia put it, tears convey an “honest look.” I don’t doubt the authenticity of the emotions in these videos. The sadness in them may be more real than the inspiration for making them—the breakup. All the TikTokers I spoke with believed fervently in the strength of their feelings, even if they ultimately changed their mind about their exes, or about the true reasons for their sobbing spiral.
The most quoted line from Notting Hill is “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” Breakup TikTokers stand before audiences, great and small, and ask simply to be seen in all their exquisitely despairing glory. In the end, a breakup TikTok is never about the ex so much as it is about the TikToker, their capacity for hurt, and the realness of their own feelings.
Clementine Ford is an Associate Editor for Air Mail